Just what the doctor ordered
An Interview with Yoga Teacher Neta Katz
By Sean Grover
Here’s a secret that none of my patients know: in the past, I sat through sessions with an ice-pack or heating pad strapped to my lower back, discreetly tucked under my suit jacket. A back injury had made it difficult for me to sit for any length of time. As a psychotherapist, I do a lot of sitting and listening. The pain made it nearly impossible to do either.
After a year of medication, X rays, MRIs, hot packs, cold packs, special pillows and special chairs, I was getting nowhere. I added exercise to my schedule, changed my diet, lost thirty pounds—still the pain persisted.
It was only when I turned to Eastern treatments that I began to see real results. Acupuncture reduced swelling, brought healing to damaged tissue, and stimulated stagnating muscles. The pain relief came quickly but I kept reinjuring myself and needing more treatments.
That’s when an old friend dragged me to a yoga class and introduced me to a gifted yoga teacher named Neta Katz.
Misconceptions of Yoga
I never seriously considered yoga, unless you count the two years after college I spend in a yoga class trying to get a date with the teacher. I got the date (a disaster) and I dropped the class. Twenty years later, my intentions with yoga were much more earnest.
The yoga class was nothing like I experienced before. Rather than rushing through poses, we moved meticulously slow and methodically. We were being trained to study our bodies, trace the effects of our posture, the way we sit, walk, stand, breathe, wait for the subway—virtually every aspect of our physical being.
In no time, I learned that the uneven alignment of my ankles was stressing my lumbar spine, the outer rotation of my feet was compressing my sacroiliac joint, and my weak stomach muscles weren’t doing their job of supporting my lower back.
In other words, bad habits and neglect were causing all my own problems. To me, this sounded an awful lot like psychotherapy for the body.
Within a few weeks of starting class nearly all my physical difficulties vanished. The injuries stopped, my energy improved. In fact, I felt healthier than I had in years. Just how did Neta accomplish so much in so little time?
An Interview with Neta Katz
Recently, I sat with Neta at her kitchen table and asked her to share her thoughts about yoga.
What’s the essence of yoga?
Oh goodness, that’s a big question. Yoga means union. We begin with the premise that there is no separation between the body, mind, emotions, and spirit. Yoga happens when you experience the union of these parts and quiet the vacillations of your mind.
What type of yoga do you teach and what’s unique about it?
I’ve been a student of Iyengar yoga for over 20 years, and have been teaching in the Iyengar tradition for close to 15 years now. Iyengar has a strong therapeutic component to it. The props introduced by B.K.S Iyengar such as blocks, blankets, straps and such, makes this form of yoga accessible to everybody, young and old, in good or poor health.
What’s the Iyengar process like?
Iyengar yoga is very detailed, disciplined, and structured.
Alignment and integrity are key elements of the work. When you take a close look at your body, you see patterns emerge. Once you understand these patterns and the difficulties they may be causing you, you can explore new choices.
Each pose presents you with conflict. Our job here is conflict resolution without judgment. You learn how to approach conflicts with intelligence. You begin to see them as loaded with potential. Once you stop getting stressed about a conflict, everything changes!
I’ve noticed certain pose evoke strong feelings.
That’s right. Many poses bring up powerful feelings. With each pose, you’re confronting emotions, sometimes very specific emotions. As you gain mastery over the pose, and develop greater comfort, you begin to gain mastery over emotional issues as well.
Yoga gives you the opportunity to safely confront your discomfort. Rather than avoid or deny it, you create space around it. Discomfort becomes less threatening, dense or trapped in your body. Most importantly, you begin to discover your own strength. Instead of feeling, “This is impossible,” you begin to say to yourself, “I can do this.” I think yoga and psychotherapy have much in common in this regard.
When were you introduced to yoga?
I was eighteen years old and in the Israeli army, completely on my own. The army was not suited for my temperament and I had a breakdown. I had panic attacks, anxiety; I couldn’t sleep. Someone recommended yoga.
During the first few classes, I had to leave the room. Several times I couldn’t stop crying; the more I connected with my body, the more emotion was released.
The power of yoga is we start with the physical because it’s so tangible. “Lift your sternum, lift your arches, make the heels heavy, contain your front ribs.” These physical instructions have huge implications on how we relate to the world, how we perceive ourselves. The physical effects the emotional; it’s a direct ratio.
Is there a wrong way to do yoga?
The truth is New York is a very confusing place to practice yoga. I find there’s a lot of reckless yoga out there and it’s heartbreaking. I’ve seen people being taught to work thoughtlessly, rush through poses or repeat the same sequence over and over again. It doesn’t make sense to me. Everything is constantly in flux and change…our practice should reflect that.
Yoga is so rich in history and value, seeing it become competitive or overly concerned with body and image is upsetting. Ultimately, It’s not about the perfect pose, it’s about developing perfect awareness. It’s an internal process. Of course, you don’t ignore the form but in the end, yoga is less about matter and more about essence.
Does yoga practice change or evolve, as you grow older?
As you age, the practice becomes less about the physical. Of course, we want to build a strong body that can sustain you through changes and new phases of life, but I find that as you grow older, your practice grows more intelligent, patient, and wise.
Yoga always concerns itself with the way you live your life and getting in touch with your essence. You’re encouraged to live in a very authentic way. For me, this process of self-discovery and growth is pure poetry.
A Perfect Marriage of East & West
Psychotherapy and yoga seek to empower, challenge, and inspire you to cultivate healthier ways of being. The combination of psychotherapy and yoga is a powerful detonator for personal growth. I’ve recommended yoga to many of my patients and have been astonished by the changes I’ve seen in them. The feelings that come up in yoga are brought into their therapy session. And the discomfort or psychosomatic symptoms that arise in their therapy are revisited in yoga. Together, yoga and psychotherapy make great dance partners, a perfect union of healing traditions. www.seangrover.com
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